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Opening remarks to the public hearing on the Australian Research Council Amendment (Ensuring Research Independence) Bill 2018

Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee
Opening remarks from Dr Matthew Brown, Deputy Chief Executive, Group of Eight

“The Go8 is very much the university grouping most intensely engaged with the ARC given that we receive 70 percent of its funding.

As such, I feel we need to start by asking how did we get here? 

If we are going to have the robust research system that the nation deserves, then it is our view that the ARC and its legislation must be overhauled. 

We need to pay special attention to ARC governance – noting that the Minister is partly addressing this through a Statement of expectation.

We need to pay special attention to accountability and transparency – which is really at the heart of the current legislation under consideration.  

And we must regain the research community’s trust in both the ARC and its processes.    

The ARC is here to deliver Australia what it deserves, the best research judged by expert peer review. 

Therefore, the Go8 asks that the Committee recognizes that it is past time to commission an independent review of the ARC, and to refresh the ARC with transparency and appropriate governance.

It is also time to reaffirm the role of peer review in the grant funding process. Simply put, it is the most rigorous research appraisal available.

The fact Australia has been crab-walking back from peer review via ministerial vetoes from Canberra has not gone unnoticed by researchers and research institutions, including overseas. It shows a lack of Government understanding of the critical contribution of our researchers as well as a lack of confidence in the ARC – both of which we need to resolve.

The focus of the current legislation – supported by the Go8 – is to remove the Minister of the day’s ability to unilaterally apply this veto – without explanation – to projects recommended through the comprehensive peer review process.

Apart from when approved research projects impinge on security concerns, which is beyond the scope and clearance of peer review, a Minister does not, frankly, have the required expertise to make such a judgement call.

With security we will always put Australia first and accept a changed decision.  But as we watch democracy under siege in Ukraine, we must guard against the possibility that political ideology may inform research decisions here in Australia. 

As I noted earlier, these matters are having an impact on the perception of the Australian research system overseas.

From our counterparts in the UK – the Russell Group – whose membership includes the likes of Cambridge and Oxford – and I quote “This looks like a significant governance breakdown in the operation of the ARC….we haven’t seen anything on grants being withheld or withdrawn because of political  affiliation, I think there would be uproar here if that happened”.

And from our US Counterparts –  whose members include Stanford, Harvard and Yale – and I again quote: “ I think I can reasonably say that we have not been facing the same level of challenges from our funding agencies as it sounds you are facing with the ARC….we have been able to continually engage with them and had fairly good success at getting clarification and/or changes to make policies more reasonable.”

While the international standing of the Australian research system has been impacted by the Ministerial vetoes, the Go8 also has significant concerns for the reputation and the mental and financial health of our researchers in the current context.

Researchers have had to cope with the stress of much delayed critical grant decisions.

Some researchers have seen their research projects not only vetoed but also ridiculed in the Australian Parliament, seemingly on the basis of the project title alone. This willfully ignores the substantive content and impact of the work, as judged by experts. 

So, returning to my earlier point: if Australia wants to enhance sovereign capability in a post-COVID, geopolitically uncertain world, then we cannot let our best researchers leave because of a misfiring ARC and Ministerial vetoes. In other nations they will be welcomed with open arms and their research will be generously funded – to our loss.

As a nation, we should see that worth and hold on to it.   Let us embed the Haldane principle – expert review of research within guidelines and priorities established by Government. Nothing could be more obvious or effective as a first step to rebuilding Australia’s research grant reputation.


Contact: Dr Matthew Brown, Group of Eight Deputy Chief Executive on +61 422 937 663